Saturday, February 23, 2013

You Were A Little-Read Blogger And I Just A Rockette

I ended my college radio show with this song, so it feels right to do the same here, at least for the time being. You know, to make it my calling card.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Farewell, Ed Koch

As someone born in 1983, I obviously don't remember anything about Ed Koch's 12 years as New York's mayor. By the time he left office, I was six years old and my family had decamped to the suburbs. Nevertheless, I've found his death last week to be quite affecting. As many have written, he was a true representation of the city -- opinionated, outspoken, ethnic and accomplished, with his personality intertwined in all of those accomplishments. Much of the Times' appraisal of Koch's time as mayor describes it as a mixed success. He stopped the city from sliding deeper into irrelevance in the immediate aftermath of its near bankruptcy, led a huge charge on housing, and promoted equal treatment of gay city workers, but he wasn't much of a visionary, the paper wrote. He loved the city very deeply, which may be what a mayor needs more than any other quality to succeed. (It's probably what has kept Tom Menino as Boston's mayor for the past two decades.)

What I find most memorable about Koch's death is that he was the last mayor of New York when the city was still a wayward, slightly scary place. The Times' obituary mentions an idea Koch had to stop graffiti on the subway cars. No one would ever dare do such a thing now. In the early 21st century, New York's path as the wealthiest, most exciting city in the country is very secure, even if local conservative pundits suggest otherwise as they object to electing a Democrat in this year's election. But the idea that New York would return to such a pinnacle was far-fetched in the early '80s. Crime was high, streets were dirty, jobs weren't abundant, disinvestment was rampant, the Bronx was bombed out. If I'd told you in 1989 that I'd go to Bushwick for a weekend of recording music (as I did recently), because that's where all the cool kids live now, you'd look at me like I was absolutely crazy. But it's as natural as downing a glass of artisanal whiskey with a plate of locally raised duck terrine.

Maybe David Dinkins, Koch's successor, who's still alive, is the last link to this era. Crown Heights rioted when he was mayor. But there's a real passing of an era with Koch's death.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Laid On Your Back

In the midst of this weekend's monumental snowstorm, I watched "(500) Days of Summer," a satisfactory romantic comedy that tries a bit too hard to be quirky and self-aware. My favorite moment came in an opening scene, when, to establish the beautiful indie charm of the female lead, played by Zooey Deschanel, the narrator said that she quoted Belle and Sebastian's album "The Boy with the Arab Strap" in her high school yearbook notes. And so did I. I had to rewind the scene to be sure I heard correctly! Whereas Deschanel's character took from the title track -- "Color my life with the chaos of trouble" -- I excerpted "Sleep the Clock Around" -- "There's a lot to be done while your head is still young." I still find this line inspiring. Unlike Deschanel's character, my public display of affection for this album didn't lead to a spike in regional sales.

From browsing reviews of the move, I learned the meaning of "Manic Pixie Dream Girl." (Zooey Deschanel is apparently one of the archetypes, particularly in "(500) Days of Summer.") A film critic coined the term in the Onion: "That bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." This is very funny, mainly because this is exactly the sort of woman I wanted to meet when I was 19 years old -- I had confused myself into thinking I was a "broodingly soulful" young man. It's probably why I liked "Grosse Pointe Blank" and "Good Will Hunting" so much, though that discredits Minnie Driver's fine acting and the writing in both movies. She was an ambitious, intelligent woman in both roles, unlike the stereotype, who is much less driven, as Deschanel's character was. The male leads, played by John Cusack and Matt Damon, sure were needlessly lost in their own thoughts, though, which is probably why I liked them so much. Luckily, that period is over.

Above is the trailer to "(500) Days of Summer." Thanks to Belle and Sebastian for the post's title. It's part of a lyric from the title song of "The Boy with the Arab Strap."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Barack Obama And I Are Practically Best Friends

Much to my delight, I read in Sunday's Times that Barack Obama also detests it when people use the word "impact" as a verb! In fact, according to the story, when he started slipping and doing it himself, his aides realized that Washington was wearing him down: "Even Mr. Obama's speech has changed a bit, close observers say. Though he still disdains Washington, he often sounds less like a disapproving outsider and more like a participant. One former aide was startled to hear Mr. Obama use 'impact' as a verb, a particular tendency in the capital." "Impact" is a noun, end of story. One can change or affect an  outcome, but one can't impact an outcome. One can only have an impact on an outcome. I'm so glad to know that President Obama and I share so much common. If we both dislike one specific word, imagine what other bonds lie below. I had to tell my wife quickly.

More importantly, Obama is restless: "Mr. Obama's entire career has been about getting to the next stage: if he could only become a lawyer, and then a public officials, and then a United States senator, and then president, he could create real change." I certainly want my president to be someone who always wants more. I sure do.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Piazza, New York Hall Of Famer

After receiving more than 50 percent of the votes in his first time on the ballot, Mike Piazza will likely be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In fact, every former player who's been in this position before has made it there. And Piazza deserves it. The historically great benchmarks for reaching the Hall of Fame -- 500 home runs, 3,000 hits and 300 wins -- have lost their luster in a post-steroids era of statistics immersion, where offensive numbers were inflated by drugs and new statistics have created more refined ways of evaluating players, elevating some, diminishing some and confirming the talent of others. But to be even more qualitative, my key threshold is whether that player was his era's best at that position. If so, he deserves to be in because the Hall of Fame recognizes the game's greatest through each era. Piazza was baseball's best catcher from circa 1993 to 2003.

His 2000 season, when he led the Mets to the World Series, was incredible, with 38 home runs, 113 runs batted in, a .324 average and an OPS above 1.0. That last statistic is my favorite because it indicates whether a hitter is able to reach base frequently and hit for power. Only a couple of players pass 1.0 each year and Piazza did it four times in his career. He was the most feared player of his teams during that decade-long span, all while playing catcher, the most physically burdensome position in baseball. Finding great hitters who play first base isn't all that hard because they're positioned there specifically because first base isn't very painful to man, so it doesn't get in the way of hitting. Catching is very different. If everyone in baseball -- players, executives, fans, and writers -- recognizes a player as the best, most-dominant player at his position for an era, then that player should be in the Hall of Fame.

Of course, Piazza's candidacy is complicated by the steroids era. There have long been rumors he took them, though the only person to claim it was the sportswriter Jeff Pearlman, in his book about Roger Clemens. Piazza apparently avoided reporters for several years after retiring so that he wouldn't be asked, but he denies in his soon-to-be-published autobiography he ever took them. Even with the era's taint, I have to apply the same standard as the judicial system: innocent until proven guilty. Those players who at one time seemed to be surefire Hall of Famers but have been clearly linked to steroids, such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens or Rafael Palmeiro, shouldn't be admitted. The Hall of Fame exists to honor baseball and they fundamentally disrespected the game. But that doesn't mean that players who "looked big" or "performed better than expected" (or in Piazza's case, had bad back acne) should also be shut out on suspicion. That creates far too muddy a standard. Piazza hasn't been conclusively linked to using steroids and should be voted in unless proved otherwise or unless voters think that his talents truly don't meet the standards. I say the same of Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas.

Thanks to Belle and Sebastian for inspiring the post's title. Piazza will probably go into the Hall as a Los Angeles Dodger, though. His family was personally close to the franchise and his best early seasons happened there, even if he had great ones with the Mets and played one more year there. He sure was my favorite player through my teenage years, which I realize colors all of the above.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Nah, I'm OK With Growing Old, Part 2

A.C. Newman deserves large amounts of credit for his newest album, "Shut Down the Streets." He turns flutes, banjos and clarinets into pop; all manners of keyboards into hooks; and that scariest of topics -- growing old -- into a deeply satisfying rock album. Gone are the madcap whimsy of "The Slow Descent into Alcoholism" and the inscrutability of "The Laws Have Changed," two of Newman's more popular, early songs for the New Pornographers. Instead, his new album covers birth, death, deception, marriage, love, and the resigned feeling that art is hard and not all it's made out to be. In the opening song, he declares it's time to "abandon the search for an author of small works." It sounds a bit like a Roberto Bolano novel, with its mythical pursuits of cult writers, but also a bit like Newman describing himself, an author of small pop gems that have been adored for 10 years but never by all that many people. The arrangements here are really expert, layering and removing instruments with great instinct to create rich compositions. For all these reasons, "Shut Down the Streets" is easily my favorite record of 2012. Above is a video of Newman and his band performing two songs from the album. The first, "I'm Not Talking," is the album opener and just a fantastic song.

Here are a few other records I enjoyed last year:

* Hospitality - "s/t": The bouncy songs are good, but the slower ones that take longer to reveal themselves are even better. When Amber Papini, the leader, sings a wordless vocal line over a brooding bass part at the end of "Julie," it feels momentous. This album was too overlooked. Still disappointed with myself for passing on their show at Great Scott last week.

* The Tallest Man on Earth - "There's No Leaving Now": I'm in the minority choosing this one over its predecessor, but I like the how the keyboards add a softer edge and bit more complexity.

* Beachwood Sparks - "The Tarnished Gold": It's not a surprise that the best songs are about realizing that the best things are what you had right in front of you all along. Even if I recently realized for the first time that they shamelessly mimic the Byrds, the album comes from a place of sincerity that not many bands choose to mine anymore.

And a few other smaller pieces I liked:

* KEXP's radio sessions: The catalogue is impressively large and has become a great way to discover new bands. Their collection makes me thankful that YouTube exists.

* The first song on DIIV's album: Everyone compares them to the Smiths and Nirvana -- and the songwriter says one inspiration is Malian guitars -- but that first song sounds like vintage Yo La Tengo in all the right ways.

* Video parodies of "Call Me Maybe": They're always funny, whether crudely or carefully produced, especially this one by the Big Ten's mascots. And the hook isn't bad, either.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

I Went Over The Fiscal Cliff And I All I Got Was This Dumb Blog Post

I spent the past month dutifully reading the Times' stories about the fiscal cliff and am exhausted. After weeks of negotiating, bickering, failed votes, and trying to understand the finer points about how the Congressional Budget Office calculates tax policy, I know that my taxes will be higher starting this year, even though my household earns less than $250,000, because of a slight increase to the payroll tax rate; the federal government will raise more tax revenue than it would have if it had kept the Bush tax cuts in place, but the bill that ultimately passed Congress will add to the deficit, compared to if they'd simply done nothing; and the House's Republican caucus is truly unsound and totally incapable of governing, professing to want to lower the deficit but not interested in approving any legislation that would actually do this. At least Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who's one of that chamber's most conservative Democrats (in one campaign ad, he used a rifle to shoot down Obamacare), had the insight to say, "Something has gone terribly wrong when the biggest threat to our American economy is  the American Congress."

The entire "fiscal cliff" debacle was full of irony. Its name, coined by who-knows, is misleading. It suggests that if Congress hadn't acted, the federal deficit would've ballooned, when in reality, doing nothing would've closed the deficit by the greatest amount in the past 12 years. There was no cliff, either, but rather a gradual press on the federal budget and individual wallets. The former would've been subjected to budget cuts and the latter to tax increases, which affect behavior over time, not on the first day. And after four years of Republicans screaming for austerity, they wanted to do all they could to avoid it once the chance to impose austerity presented itself. Then, after despairing about the effect of large cuts to military spending, they were OK with them once Democrats also wanted to avert those cuts. All of it was in the name of protecting historically low tax rates on those earning at least $1 million.

Most ironically, if any politician emerged a winner from the past month, it was former President George W. Bush, whose tax policy was largely made permanent. Sure, the marginal rate on households earning more than $450,000 increased from what it was under his administration, as did the rate on capital gains and the country's largest estates. But the large majority of his rates are now in place for good (or at least until Congress can pass another bill that raises taxes, which seems quite unlikely in the near future), as is his misguided belief that lower tax rates raise more revenue and boost the national economy. His policy was meant to expire after 10 years, but was designed to be tricky to undo -- a smart political move. At a time when the Republican Party claims to have rejected the Bush decade for its unfunded mandates, deficit spending and "compassionate conservatism," the party actually embraced it.

At least we only have another six months, if not 10 years, of such political and fiscal battles facing us. I can't wait to be beaten down by the Times on the subway in the morning.